what are the most literate cities in America?

All of us have some built-in assumptions about parts of America. New Yorkers are liberal, Mississippians are conservative, people in Kentucky and North Carolina love basketball and Texans are football-crazy.  But here’s one you might not have considered before:  what cities READ the most?

Well, the data’s incomplete, to say the least, but Amazon put out some data recently that sheds a little bit of light on that question (at least in terms of Amazon readers; I got this data via Mashable).  Amazon took their records for all book, magazine and newspaper sales in print and Kindle formats since the beginning of 2011 on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.  The results?

  1. Cambridge, Massachusetts
  2. Alexandria, Virginia
  3. Berkeley, California
  4. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  5. Boulder, Colorado
  6. Miami, Florida
  7. Salt Lake City, Utah
  8. Gainesville, Florida
  9. Seattle, Washington
  10. Arlington, Virginia
  11. Knoxville, Tennessee
  12. Orlando, Florida
  13. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  14. Washington, DC
  15. Bellevue, Washington
  16. Columbia, South Carolina
  17. St. Louis, Missouri
  18. Cincinnati, Ohio
  19. Portland, Oregon
  20. Atlanta, Georgia

First of all, I could have made a lot of jokes about which states aren’t included; but I won’t. Second of all, I know that per-capita-buying doesn’t equal quality or actual reading, just buying.  But other than that, a few observations:  university towns predominate, of course, and I wonder if some of the numbers are falsely inflated by students buying mandatory reading for courses.  And this does include magazine and newspaper reading, which in my mind is an entirely different category of ‘reading’ – and I lump my blog in with that category, by the way.  Long-form books are a lot different than reading Cosmopolitan, or even more cerebral fare like Sky & Telescope.

I’m glad to see two Florida cities make it on the list (and two Virginia cities in the area where I have a lot of relatives).I’m surprised that a couple of other places didn’t make the list, although I suppose there might be population size issues: for example, Austin, Texas, which I would have supposed would have a huge per capita online-book-ordering number; but maybe it’s “post-book” there and everyone’s just reading blogs and Twitter on iPads.

It would be even more fascinating to compare these to library numbers and other booksellers’ numbers. But overall, I’d expect most of these cities to remain on the list, simply because of large academic presences, probably significantly larger than other cities (New York has a lot of universities, but as a percentage of the total population I’m sure it’s quite small).  Orlando, for example, has one of the biggest universities in America that you may never have heard of, the University of Central Florida.

I’d also make the observation that my reading rate has soared since getting a Kindle.  Once you realize you can read free books (from Amazon as special deals, from Project Gutenberg and other sources) you really have no excuse not to be reading all the time.  I still go to the library sometimes with the kids, but with a 3G Kindle I can literally have a free book in my hands in seconds if I want it.  And once in a while – rarely – I’ll buy a book on sale.  I generally don’t see the point of a full-price book – for that I’ll head to the library.  But I wonder how much the Kindle and Nook and so on have affected reading patterns for the good (I don’t include the iPad – I suspect there’s a lot more game-playing and web-browsing going on with that thing than book-reading).  So people in places I might’ve expected to be on this list (Champaign-Urbana! Charlotte! San Francisco!) let’s pick up the pace and see you on this list next year!  Get a Kindle!

Quick note, too:  I’ve added a plugin to brip blap which should make it far, far easier to read on your smart phone, no matter what kind you have.  Try browsing to bripblap.com on your mobile and let me know how you like it!

Photo credit Attribution Some rights reserved by Terry Madeley:

3 Replies to “what are the most literate cities in America?”

  1. Interesting list, but there has to be something influencing these numbers. As someone who has lived in Pittsburgh and someone who lives in Arlington, VA I find it hard to believe Pittsburgh is that close to Arlington, VA in reading material and use of the internet to order reading material. Not that people in Pittsburgh are stupid and uneducated, they aren’t, but literally every 3rd person in Arlington has an advanced degree and I don’t think I know anyone without a BS/BA in Arlington. Plus, I would bet internet use in Arlington is much higher than Pittsburgh, which makes it more likely they would order from Amazon. Maybe because the majority of Pittsburghers don’t live in Pittsburgh. The actual city limits, which is rather small, only has a couple hundred thousand people, but the city does have Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University inside the limits, so maybe that along with the smaller than expected city population skews the numbers.

    It is also interesting that out of the top 5 cities only one does not have a major university in it or near it…Alexandria, VA. Also, surprising that no Maryland town shows up.

  2. I don’t think saying that this represents literacy rates is accurate. I imagine there are a lot of confounding factors in using Amazon purchasing as a proxy for literacy. Libraries, independent book sellers, and physical book stores to name a few. The mashable article doesn’t say weather sales volume was measured in dollars or books and if it included third party sellers. Also your literacy has nothing to do with actually using it, literacy is just the ability to read well not a measure of being well read.

    1. Oh, I agree – and as I pointed out it indicates nothing about quality, either. It’s simply a hard data glimpse at ‘reading trends’ which are tough to guage in polls, since people aren’t always honest about reading habits (being embarrassed to admit they read nothing but ‘People’ for example). So take the stats for what they are worth – a little ‘huh!’ moment! 🙂

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